Principles of Classicism

Bear with me for a bit. This is all about why I’m a fan of classical (though especially Classical–the lowercase “c” is different) music. It’s not (exactly) what you may think. At least, not entirely.

In music, the term Classic Period refers to a period from roughly the middle of the 18th Century into (and perhaps a little beyond) the first decade of the 19th Century during which certain “givens” of musical expression were practiced and the major forms of most of what is viewed as “classical” music were developed. Do note: in architecture, the graphic arts and the like, the period is more likely to be called Neoclassicism.

(That darned lowercase–or uncial–c”. *heh* So “Classical Music” is NOT what most folks think of when “classical music” is referenced… )

One of the primary reasons I am a fan of Classical (and even much classical) music is not just because the music is complex, beautiful and compelling but because it is the expression of a particular ethos which our society sorely lacks nowadays.

Aside from technical matters of form, the principles of Classicism as found in Classical Music were

  • balance
  • clarity
  • accessibility
  • expressiveness
  • edification

Although two of these principles are still found in abundance in contemporary music (though not in contemporary “serious” or “academic” music, IMO) it is the lack of the others, especially the last, that has seriously harmful effects upon our society.

Mozart was, of course, the ultimate practitioner of Classical Period music, following on Haydn. Beethoven took Classical principles and “revised and extended” them to the point that many (OK, most) consider his later works to be the first real examples of Romanticism. Personally, I think his later works are a period all their own. 🙂

What do these composers offer that can be beneficial to postmodern and post-postmodern society? Our contemporary music has plenty of expressiveness and is exceedingly accessible. But the expressiveness of most contemporary music is vulgar, crude and its accessibility is designed, it seems, to degrade the listener.

The principle of balance is lacking. Balance that recognizes other values besides mere “expression” of emotion or accessibility to a debased listener. Balance that recognizes that expression of emotion alone is unhealthy and that other principles apart from expression and accessibility are also important.

Clarity. How many contemporary songs have you heard that express amorphous emotion in loose, easily mistaken, misheard or amphibolous lyrics? Most? Easily. Good (vocal) music requires good prosody, clear communication of both the ideas and emotions embedded in the song–or at least as clear as the medium allows. (Music may be a language of sorts, but it is a language with an inherently fluid semantic that MUST be ruled by a clear syntax and “phonemes” or else it is mush.) Good music of any kind requires both a clear teleology and the chops to express that teleos with clarity.

Sorely lacking in most contemporary music.

And then there’s the over-riding principle of edification. Does the hearer go away better for having heard the piece… or degraded, debased intellectually, emotionally, morally? Make no mistake: even bad music is a powerful medium, reaching deep into the soul. I guess the most important question one might ask is “Is this music (song) really beautiful? Does it lift my mind/heart? Does it convict me of my lacks, ask more of me in thought and feeling? Does it even have the potential to inspire me to find or create balance, clarity, accessibility, expressiveness and further edification in my own life?

Does it stretch me in good ways? Or does it dull my mind, my emotions, my spirit? Do I come away from hearing it no better–not even potentially–than before?

Good Classical Period music–the three “stars” of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are a good place to start–and any music that follows the principles, not necessarily the forms and styles, has the ability to positively impact listeners with its values… but not dull-eared, lazy listeners who’ve been enstupiated by most contemporary music.

Oh, there are people today writing music that conforms to all the principles–f not the forms and styles–of Classical Period music. But for the most part, you’ll not find them in top 40 music.

Yes, there are other things I find objectionable in much contemporary music–performers who can’t sing worth a damn, derivative crap promoted as new material, sloppy vocals, instrumentals (promoted as “creative stylings”) that indicate a lack of both talent and the hard work of serious practice to develop real chops, abysmally poor prosody and a complete lack of understanding of musical teleology that’s inherent in any great performer (classically trained or street tutored), apparent inability to hear or reproduce pitches (*blech!*).

But all my musical exceptions aside, what I miss most in the vast majority of contemporary music are the principles that lighted the path for Classical composers and continued at least through the Romantic Period to inform most music.

But especially do I miss the principle of edification: the potential to uplift and improve the life and mind of the hearer.

*sigh*ed at Jo’s Cafe and TMH’s Bacon Bits and Diane’s Stuff

11 Replies to “Principles of Classicism”

  1. Pingback: My Dog Boo
  2. I will agree with you regarding all the positive aspects of classical music, but I think it’s your lack of appreciation for contemporary classics such as “Smack My Bitch Up” by Prodigy and “Starfuckers Inc.” by Nine Inch Nails that has skewed your review. Take some time to immerse yourself in the catalog of a modern musical giant such as 50 Cent and I’m sure we’ll find you “in da club wit a bottle full of bub” in no time. I’ll be there waiting… Nigga.

  3. Angel, Woody:

    Of course there are a few contemporary musicians (and many beyond the Classical period) who adhere to the principles briefly outlined above. Antonin Dvorak, although primarily Romantic in his palatable pieces, was still largely influenced by the Principles of Classicism–and he had the chops to break the rules of form when he desired.

    NIN, .50 and Prodigy, however, as you so ironically note (nice illustration, BTW–good one[s]), Woody, don’t even know what principles are (although NIN does have a concept of musical forms that surpasses that of many contemporary groups)

    I do need to clarify a bit in my piece above though. Although I mentioned it in passing, the principles outlined do stand apart from (although they instruct) the forms of musical styles, such as Classicism and Romanticism. Indeed, the Principles of Classicism could be said to simply have been distilled from earlier Renaissance and even earlier thought that centered around the idea that those who knew a great deal and were well-trained and had achieved mastery in a field?or were otherwise blessed or gifted?had an obligation to enrich the lives of others.

    Nowadays, gifted people seem to mostly coast on their gifts, rarely troubling themselves to develop real “chops” and usually seeking to enrich themselves at the expense of debasing themselves and others.

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